Go Daddy founder and CEO Bob Parsons is not one to back down from a little controversy. The outspoken entrepreneur helped make his company a household name -- and the largest Internet domain registrar in the world -- with edgy Super Bowl commercials that have become perennial water-cooler fodder. Now, he finds himself in the crosshairs of the equally outspoken PETA and other animal-rights advocates over a graphic video he posted online, which depicts him shooting and killing an elephant in Zimbabwe. The video has already been viewed more than 300,000 times.
Parsons, a member of the AOL Small Business Board of Directors, says he was working with tribal authorities to prevent "problem elephant" from decimating crops, legally, and that the slain elephant provided food for impoverished villagers. PETA is leading the charge against Parsons, branding him the "Scummiest CEO of the Year," canceling its Go Daddy account and encouraging others to do the same. "Instead of coming up with flimsy excuses for killing these highly intelligent and social animals, Parsons should use his wealth to fund humane solutions to human/elephant conflicts," PETA said on its website.
"Things couldn't be better," Parsons said in an interview with AOL Small Business, deflecting the criticism and noting that the hunt not only helped feed Zimbabwean villagers and protect their crops -- but that the ensuing controversy will inevitably help Go Daddy too.
It's an interesting question for entrepreneurs, who are often the public faces of their companies and run the risk of alienating customers with their personal behavior, political views and the like. Parsons, for his part, isn't too worried. His advice? Be yourself, and when controversy strikes, keep being yourself.
Well, Bob, you're always up to something. What happened here?
Here's the deal. I'll give you the whole genesis. This is the sixth year I've been to Africa. I'm a hunter. I went there to hunt buffalo. I gradually became aware of this situation with problem elephant and the need to control them. Since then, it's the only thing I do. I go over and spend two weeks volunteering to deal with problem elephant.
In Zimbabwe, elephant are not endangered. There's actually too many of them. The people there are very impoverished. The poverty is beyond our imagination. They have nothing. I'll give you an example. When I'm there, I drink bottled water so I don't get Montezuma's Revenge. One of the things the people absolutely treasure is a plastic bottle with a cap. They use it to take water to school or in the fields. That gives you an idea of how little these people have.
If they don't get a crop, they starve to death. That's the bottom line. So what I do, I'm invited by the tribal authorities there. I go there, I work with a friend of mine who lives there, we patrol the area in a truck. A farmer will get us, elephants will be tearing their crop up and our goal is to go in. The people there try to keep them away with fire, beating drums, screaming. The elephants have learned. So what it takes is for someone to go into the field while the elephants are there. The elephants storm out and they don't return. So what happens is you've got the rest of the crops saved. And you have protein for people who need it.
Why shoot and publish a video about it?
First of all, this is something that happens that I think ought to be recorded. Folks should be able to watch this years from now and say, "Look at this, this actually happened over there." In America, many of us are like ostriches -- we stick our heads in the sand and have this Pollyanna view of this. This is really the way it is. I put a warning on there that it was graphic and don't watch it if you don't have a stomach for it. I'll tell you, years from now, maybe my great grandchildren will see this and say, "This is what he did, this is how it was done." There's not that much footage of something like this.
Were you worried about any backlash?
No. Am I surprised that it amounted to what it is? When you're 60 years old, nothing really surprises you.
This is the third time I've posted a video like this, but this is the first time that this has happened. This is the first time I've gotten a letter from PETA. They told me they're sending me a certificate calling me the "Scummiest CEO of the Year." I'll tell you, if I get it, I'm framing it and putting in my office.
What disappoints me about this is that this is their best shot. I would think they would have something more intellectual or professional to say.
I'm not a member of PETA. I'm a proud carnivore, I love a good steak. But this video is still tough to watch. Some people are objecting to the fact that you played AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" and zoom in on one of the villagers wearing a Go Daddy hat during the video, like you're using this as a commercial. How do you respond?
The reason that they're wearing Go Daddy hats is that I grab whatever I have in swag and give to these guys, because they have nothing. People were saying, "Bob is promoting the company." Let me tell you, when I want to advertise, it won't be a guy with an elephant. It'll be a sexy girl dancing on a car.
I picked "Hell's Bells" because if you're in that situation with knives fighting for meat, that's about as close to Hell as you get. Am I apologetic? I'm going to do it next year.
Yeah, it is heart-wrenching. The people are sweet, they're the most wonderful people in the world. They're pretty special. So to see them in that situation, it's heart-wrenching. On the one hand, it's a great feeling to know you provided that, but on the other hand, it's sad that there's not more.
You're one of the most outspoken entrepreneurs around. That's why we like having you on our Board of Directors. Are you always comfortable just doing your thing, no apologies?
Yeah, I am. I never do what I do for the money. I never worry about quarterly earnings, I never worry about any of that. I do what I do to do a good job, to live my life the right way, to be an American. And when you do that, you're willing to stand up and speak your mind.
Do you wish more CEOs did that?
That's pretty much up to them.
Being a CEO comes with a lot of responsibility -- you're often the face of your company. And everyone's money is green. Ever worry that your personal behavior might alienate some customers and ultimately hurt the company?
Here's what I believe is going to happen. Most of the people PETA resonates with are not our customers. The second thing is that the average American realizes what is going on here. The average American has a pretty good soul. They realize people need to eat, the circle of life, they're realistic. They're not politically correct. And because of all this stuff, you're going to have more people aware of Go Daddy and our business is going to go up.
This is actually good for business?
I'll just say, lucky me. If people say it's wrong for me to benefit because our business goes up -- I didn't start it. I didn't send me a certificate.
You're somewhat of a marketing master, with your controversial Super Bowl ads and popular video blog. Is all publicity truly good publicity?
I would say, it is -- if there's a positive side to it. When I ran my first Super Bowl ad, I cannot tell you the negative comments I was swarmed with. I thought I was going to be tarred and feathered by every feminist. And our market share went from 16 percent to 25 percent. I was hearing from this small, vocal minority that moves like a tsunami. But most people see it and they step up with their wallets. So I think the deal is to not shrink from it. It takes a certain amount of backbone.
So when you're hit with a controversy...
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 3/31/11.